Giorgos Seferis, Greece
THE LANGUAGE AND THE MONSTER*
At this very moment I feel that I myself represent a living contradiction.
Indeed, the Swedish Academy has decided that my effort in a language widely spoken through the centuries, but limited in its present form, is worthy of this high distinction. It wished to honor my language and now I express my gratitude in a foreign language. I beg your pardon, which I, firstly, beg for myself.
I belong to a small country. To a rocky peninsula on the Mediterranean, which has no other wealth but the efforts of its people, the sea and the light of the sun. Our country is small, but its tradition is immense and what characterizes it is that it has been passed on to us without interruption. Greek has never ceased being spoken. It has undergone the changes every living organism experiences, and there are no gaps in it. Another characteristic of this tradition is its love for humaneness; justice is its principle. In the classical tragedy composed with such precision, whoever dared to exceed his measure was to be punished by the Erinyes. The same rule applies to natural phenomena as well. “Helios must not overstep the measure”, Heraclitus said, “otherwise the Erinyes, defenders of Justice, will hunt him down.”
I think it’s not beyond the realm of the possible that a modern scientist can benefit, if he would ponder over it, from this thought of the Ionian philosopher. As for me, I am touched on seeing how the sense of justice has penetrated so deeply into the Greek soul that it has become a natural law. One of my teachers* from the beginning of last century wrote, “…we will perish because we have done injustice…” This man was unlettered. He learned to read and write when he was thirty-five years of age. But in present day Greece, the oral tradition strikes very deep roots just like the written one. The same holds true for poetry. What matters to me is the fact that Sweden has decided to honor this poetry, too, and poetry as a whole even when it springs from a small people. Because I believe that today’s world, tormented by fear and anxiety, needs poetry. Poetry lies in the human breath, and what would become of us if our breath were to cease? It’s an act of trust, and only God knows whether all our misfortune is not a result of the lack of trust.
Last year, around this very table, the huge difference between the discoveries of modern science and those of literature was pointed out. What was also pointed out was that the difference between Greek and modern drama is small. Indeed, it seems that in its essence human behavior has not changed. And I have to add that man always needs to hear this humane voice we call poetry. The voice that is threatened to die away for lack of love, and yet is reborn over and over again. Persecuted, it knows where to find refuge; denied, it possesses the instinct to go and strike roots at the most unexpected places. It makes no distinction between big and small countries around the world. Its realm is within the hearts of all the people in the world. It possesses the gift to always avoid custom – this industry. I owe gratitude to the Swedish Academy for uniting these things; for sensing that the languages of the so-called organic circulation should not be made an obstacle to stifle the beating of the human heart, which has become an Areopagus* able to “judge with solemn truth life’s ill-appointed lot”, as Shelley wrote, the alleged inspirer of Alfred Nobel, that man who managed to redeem inevitable violence with his heart’s magnanimity.
In this world, which is growing smaller by the minute, every one of us needs the other ones. We have to look for man, no matter where he might be. On his way to Thebes, Oedipus encountered the Sphinx who asked him her riddle. He answered, “Man** ”. This simple word destroyed the monster. We have many monsters to destroy. Let us think of Oedipus’s reply.